Top NASCAR Journalist Amy Henderson experiences NHRA
Images provided by veteran motorsports photographer Rhonda Hogue McCole
"But they don't go anywhere." by Amy Henderson
NHRA Mello Yello Funny Car expert driver Matt Hagan celebrates his win at zMAX Dragway in Concord, North Carolina.
"But they don't go anywhere."
Such was one of my first thoughts when confronted with the concept of drag racing. After all, the races only last a quarter mile—less than four seconds in NHRA's top divisions. How exciting could it possibly be?
The short answer is that it was more exciting than I could ever have guessed it might be.
For me, the "hook" in auto racing has always been the sound of high-performance engines. They scream, they whine, they convey real human emotion: anger, anticipation, unbridled joy. Their song is the music of the American dream. It's almost auditory overload, not from the sheer level of the noise so much as the raw power just under the surface.
But with the drag racers, it's not just that you hear the engines and all their power and glory as it is you feel them. From the sportsman to the nitromethane-fueled Top Fuel dragsters and Funny Cars., the moment they go past is recorded deep within. The first time the nitro-powered cars went by me four wide, I instinctively grabbed onto the fence that separated the stands from the racetrack, the feeling as so powerful. It felt as if I didn't hold onto something, I might be swept away.
Racing is, by nature, a sensual sport—it assaults every sense we have. But not like this…never like _this_. It was almost too much. Except it wasn't too much and I found myself anticipating the next run and the next to feel that power to my core again. Even the exhaust from the nitromethane, which brings tears to your eyes and makes your throat burn, was enticing instead of offensive. The flames shooting out of the headers are quite lovely in a still photo, as is the haze the fumes leave in each car's wake. It was entrancing. OK, so I might have a small racecar problem…
I was also pleasantly surprised by the diversity of both the competitors and fans, and equally by the total lack of media hype surrounding it. It doesn't matter the way it does in other forms of racing what a drivers gender or ethnicity is; they're all simply drivers. And I like that a lot. There's no program or agenda to bring women or minorities to the sport. All are welcome and accepted as racers and as fans. It didn't seem like any of the many female competitors had any added pressure to perform or to be the focus of the day. That really gave me pause, because it was a bit of a shocking reminder about how the media in other motorsports treat women drivers as a story simply because they're competing. I didn't get that sense at the drag strip. Sure, Courtney and Brittany Force had a lot of attention surrounding them, but I got the impression that that was less because they're women andmore because they're John Force's daughters.
But what really impressed me the most was the way the drivers interacted with the fans, and the access that the fans have, and how genuinely friendly everyone in the sport is. I've worked in NASCAR for several years, and I understand why they can't afford fans the kind of access that the NHRA fans enjoy, but at the same time, I see how the access brings the fans closer to the sport they love, and how important that is.
Everywhere you looked, all weekend, the drivers and crews were talking to fans, signing autographs, answering questions, and taking pictures. And I don't think I saw one driver, not even the sport's biggest starts, look like he or she would rather be somewhere else or like the fans were an intrusion. And as a result, the fans were polite and gracious, and it was clear that there was a kind of bond being forged. I asked Antron Brown about his interactions with the fans, because he seems to relish that time…and he does. He told me that he remembers being a fan growing up, and the impression it had on him when he got to meet his heroes. That never left him, and he makes the most of his opportunities to spend time among fans.
Every driver I spoke to talked about the access fans have, the time they spend with them. I spoke with Jeg Coughlin, Jr., Brittany Force, and Matt Hagan in addition to Brown, and all three were adamant about how special that interaction was to them. Watching them, it was clear that they mean it. It never looked rushed; they took the time to greet people and pose for photos and talk to their fans. In NASCAR, that interaction has largely gone by the wayside, and that's too bad—the NHRA fans were truly connected with the sport, and it was clear how loyal they are to drag racing as a sport. That's faded in NASCAR…the fans still watch, but lack a true connection at times, and that's a shame, because the NHRA pits are such a relaxed, wonderful place.
My overall impressions of that first NHRA weekend were of a camaraderie between everyone that's just not seen in other forms of racing. Add to that the colorful carnival atmosphere, racing that you literally feel to the very core, and the chance for almost anybody to go home a winner, and it's easy to "get it" about NHRA racing. I get it…and I like it.
Spencer Massey is happy about his win NHRA Mello Yello Top Fuel Dragster win.
Mike Edwards is back in champion form in NHRA's Pro Stock Car class.
Hector Arana Jr. had to beat four Pro Stock Motorcycle contenders to get this Wally trophy. Unlike many in pro classes, Arana has to race his dad sometimes in the speedy two-wheel sport.
Racetake.com thanks NMPA award-winning reporter Amy Henderson for sharing her first NHRA Mello Yello experience here with motorsports fans.
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